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Public Hearing on <BR> “Omnibus Public Safety Act of 2005,” Bill 16-247 <BR>“Criminal Code Reform Commission Establishment Act,” Bill 16-172 <BR>“Criminal Code Modernization Amendment Act,” Bill 16-130

Tuesday, May 31, 2005
Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

Charles H. Ramsey
Chief of Police
Metropolitan Police Department

Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey delivered the following statement to the Committee on Judiciary, the Honorable Phil Mendleson, Chair, on May 31, 2005, at the Council of the District of Columbia, Council Chamber, John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC.

  • Download a printable version of the testimony
Mister Chairman, members of the Committee, staff and guests … thank you for the opportunity to present this testimony concerning the Mayor’s “Omnibus Public Safety Act of 2005.” As is customary, the text of my prepared remarks will be posted on the MPD website:
As we have reported on several occasions to the Committee and the Council, crime in the District of Columbia is down – and it is down significantly. So far this year, serious crime has declined by 14 percent when compared with the same period last year, and homicides are down more than 17 percent. This follows reductions of 18 percent in serious crime, and 20 percent in homicides, during 2004.
The bottom line is that – thanks to the leadership of Mayor Williams, the support of the Council, and the hard work of our police officers and our partners in the community – DC’s neighborhoods are safer today than they have been in many years. The homicide this weekend of 17-year-old Andre Belton in Sursum Corda reminds us that we must all remain vigilant when it comes to violent crime and our youth. But with the help of the Omnibus Act before you today, I believe we can make our communities and our young people even safer in the future.
Even as encouraging as the crime statistics are, I realize that if you are a resident of DC and there is still regular gunfire on your block, or prostitutes congregating on your corner or in your alley, or cars being stolen by juveniles or other thieves … then all the statistics in the world don’t matter.  You do not feel safe.  And, therefore, you are not safe.
The goal of the Metropolitan Police Department is to ensure that all neighborhoods, all blocks, can take part in the public safety renaissance that is occurring in so many of our communities.  And we have developed a number of strategies and initiatives to help us reach that goal.  But fighting crime is not a static process or a one-size-fits-all approach.  To stay ahead of the problem, the police need a variety of tools at our disposal – tools that help us hold offenders accountable and protect our residents, in particular the most vulnerable in our community. The Omnibus Public Safety Act of 2005 provides the MPD with important new tools to fight crime and protect the vulnerable.  And I firmly believe that enactment of the law will help the District build upon the public safety gains of the last few years.

I want to briefly outline how the Act would support the MPD’s crime-fighting efforts in five key areas: reducing gun violence; combating juvenile crime; protecting our most vulnerable residents; improving the quality of neighborhood life, and enhancing officer safety.

With respect to gun violence, the good news is that gun crimes are down in DC and gun recoveries by the police are up.  Still, firearms are used in 80 percent of all homicides in our city, in nearly half of our robberies and 20 percent of assaults with a deadly weapon. One problem is that under current law, career criminals – especially career criminals involved in crimes such as armed robbery – face few consequences for continuing to carry a firearm, even after they have been convicted of a felony. The result is that many of these offenders continue carrying firearms and continue committing gun crimes.

The Act would help address this problem by prohibiting felons from possessing all firearms, not just pistols. More importantly, the Act would impose a mandatory minimum sentence of one year for a felon in possession of a firearm. This would mean that when our officers catch a felon in possession of a firearm, we could take that individual off the streets for at least a year on the gun charge – and not have to wait until he or she actually commits a crime with that gun to exact significant consequences. So this provision has not only deterrence, but crime prevention aspects as well.

Cracking down on gun crime is vital to our efforts to curb juvenile crime. Of the 24 youth victims of homicide in 2004, five were killed by a family member or caregiver.  All but one of the other 19 youth homicide victims were shot to death.  This pattern has continued into 2005.  Of the six youth killed this year, two died at the hands of a family member or caregiver.  The other four youth killed this year were shot to death.

In addition to the gun violence measures, the Act includes a number of other provisions to address the continuing problem of juvenile crime. Again, we have made important progress in combating juvenile crime. Compared with this time last year, the number of juvenile homicide victims is down from 14 to 6, and our enforcement activity – arrests, curfew and truancy violations – remains high.  The new proposal would give us additional tools to combat both juvenile offending and juvenile victimization.

To deter juvenile offenders and hold them more accountable, the Act proposes a number of reforms, including increased sanctions for juveniles who fail to appear at delinquency hearings and the loss of driving privileges for young people who commit certain criminal and traffic offenses. I realize that the “failure to appear” proposal has been before the Council in the past, and that some members have expressed reservations. But I would encourage Councilmembers to give this idea a new look.

Whether we are talking about “kiddie car thieves” or young people involved in drugs, robberies or other crimes, these young offenders continue to be caught by the police: our officers arrested almost 3,000 juveniles in 2004. But far too many of these young people continue to snub their nose at the system, because they realize there are few, if any, serious consequences for not appearing in court. This is extremely frustrating to our officers, and even more frustrating and dangerous to the residents of those communities where juvenile offenders are a serious problem.

Right now, the system not only provides these juveniles with a revolving door back to the community – the system practically escorts them to the door because there are no consequences for not appearing in court. If we are to have any hope of turning these young people around – and if we are to make our communities safer from juvenile crime – then we must ensure that young offenders come to court and are held accountable for their actions. This provision of the Act plugs a major public safety loophole that juvenile offenders have been exploiting for far too long.

The Act also supports our efforts to protect young people from victimization, abuse and recruitment into gangs or other criminal activity. In particular, Title Fourteen of the Act would create the crime of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” a provision that is common in most other jurisdictions but not clearly specified here in DC. In addition, Title Nine would make it a crime to recruit or coerce others to join a gang, or retaliate against an individual for refusing to join or seeking to leave a gang. The Act also expands the mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect, and it offers new protections for minors against sexual abuse from adults in a position of authority. Taken together, all of these provisions not only provide immediate protections for some of our most impressionable and vulnerable residents; they also support long-term prevention efforts by helping to keep young people away from delinquent and criminal behavior and the destructive influences of abuse, exploitation and victimization.

Beyond safeguarding the young, the Act also provides valuable new protections for other particularly vulnerable members of the community – specifically, our senior citizens and victims of domestic violence. While seniors are still among the least victimized of any age group, when they are the victims of violent crime, the impact can be profound. The videotaped beating and robbery of the vendor affectionately known as “Grandma” underscores just how vulnerable our seniors can be to predatory criminals. This Act would expand the list of crimes against seniors for which enhanced penalties would be available, increase the penalty enhancements in many cases, and create a mandatory minimum sentence for armed offenses against seniors. While I personally feel that there are very few penalties that would be too severe for the offender who assaulted and robbed “Grandma,” I do believe that we need to send a strong message to any and all criminals who would attack our senior citizens.  This legislation sends that message loudly and clearly.

For victims of domestic violence, the Act would also offer new protections. We know that many acts of domestic violence are committed by new and, especially, former partners. But current law does not recognize criminal acts by these individuals to be “intrafamily offenses.” Similarly, some victims not only must endure the violent crime itself; they are also prevented by their attackers from reporting the crime or seeking medical attention. The Act would address both of these situations, and would enhance the ability of police and prosecutors to prosecute all domestic violence offenders to the full extent of the law.

In the area of quality-of-life crimes, the Act provides important new tools for combating prostitution and crimes associated with abandoned buildings.  In the last several years, we have come a long way in reducing the level of blatant and open street prostitution in neighborhoods such as Logan Circle. But the problem remains in some neighborhoods – in part, because the District’s prostitution laws are weak and out-of-date. The proposed legislation would help us clean up the remaining areas where prostitution is a serious problem by, first, making it clear that engaging in prostitution is against the law. Remarkably, prostitution, itself, is not illegal today in DC.

Second, the Act would allow the Chief of Police to declare an area as a “Prostitution Free Zone” for up to 120 hours, much as I can do right now for “Drug Free Zones.” This would give our officers the authority to disperse individuals who are congregating for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or related offenses. Since the MPD began enforcing Drug Free Zones just over two years ago, we have made only a handful of arrests for loitering, but we have disrupted many drug markets and reduced crime by increasing our presence and enforcing other laws. I believe that having this same tool available in the fight against prostitution will enable us to have a similar impact on the remaining open-air prostitution markets in the District.

When it comes to abandoned properties and illegal activity within them, current DC law is similarly outdated. The police can respond when people are obviously trespassing in a vacant property, but we cannot arrest them for trespassing unless the owner confirms that the person is in the property without permission. This severely hamstrings our ability to remove trespassers and shut down these hubs of crime in many communities. The Act proposes a very common-sense alternative: when someone other than the owner is found on vacant property that is secured or has “no trespassing” signs, then that person is presumed to be trespassing and is subject to arrest. In communities where even one abandoned building creates public safety problems with drugs, prostitution and other crimes, this provision would go a long way toward enabling the police to do something about it.

Finally, the Act provides very important – and, unfortunately, very necessary – new protections for our police officers. The law creates two levels of APO, or Assault on a Police Officer: a misdemeanor and a 10-year felony. Many serious APOs are currently charged as misdemeanor assaults because we don’t have a separate, and more strict, misdemeanor APO charge. In addition, the Act would make it a felony – with a mandatory, minimum sentence of 7 to 14 years – to possess ammunition that, when fired from a pistol, is capable of penetrating police soft body armor. We recently discovered that some of the ammunition fired from the FN 5.7 firearm can, in fact, penetrate the safety vests issued to MPD and other officers. For the safety of our officers and the community, we simply cannot tolerate this type of firepower on our streets. The proposed Act deals with this very real concern in a harsh and very sensible manner.

There are other provisions of the Act that I have not touched upon in my testimony, but they, too, will support the work of the MPD in reducing crime and protecting our communities. From a public safety perspective, this Act is good public policy for two basic reasons.  First, it addresses a wide range of public safety priorities that continue to confront the District – from guns and juvenile crime, to vulnerable populations, quality-of-life issues and officer safety.

Second, the Act addresses these priorities in a comprehensive manner. Yes, the legislation enhances penalties and creates mandatory minimum sentences in various areas. But the Act does much more than just punish offenders more severely. It also includes measures that support the deterrence and, ultimately, the prevention of crime – in particular, crimes committed by and against juveniles. The proposals to protect minors from abuse, exploitation, delinquency and criminal gangs are vitally important to our long-range goals of ensuring that our young people can, and will, grow up to be productive adults.

Finally, I would like to also briefly mention the two other bills before the Judiciary Committee.  The “Criminal Code Reform Commission Establishment Act” would be an important tool for ensuring that the District’s criminal code is consistent and rational, and I support the establishment of the Commission.  I would, however, also caution that the responsibility and workload of the commission would be considerable, and nine months may be too short a timeline to ensure a thorough review and the best recommendations.

As for the “Criminal Code Modernization Act,” one section of this bill causes particular concern.  Section 2 would amend the statute so that it would only be a crime to make lewd, obscene, or indecent sexual proposals to children under the age of 16 and to certain persons suffering from mental illness.  I do not believe that such behavior is ever acceptable, no matter who it is directed at. Moreover, this change would remove an important tool for addressing prostitution, as the current statute enables MPD to arrest a person who solicits indecent exposure as a means of testing whether a prospective customer is a police officer.  Prostitutes have learned to differentiate between customers and undercover police officers because the officers will not expose themselves before proceeding to negotiations for a sexual act.  If there is no negotiation for a sexual act, then there can be no arrest for solicitation of prostitution, and, if this bill is passed as is, there could be no arrest for soliciting indecent exposure.  This change would severely hamper the District’s ability to address the sex trade.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify in support of the Omnibus Public Safety Act of 2005.  My staff and I would be happy to address any questions you may have.